Andrew Lambirth

England’s national saint

Andrew Lambirth on a splendid exhibition which shows the work of artists inspired by Shakespeare

Shakespeare is all things to all people. The greatest writer we have, he was subtle to the extent of ambivalence. As a man he was sexually fluid, politically ambidextrous and not prepared to commit himself on anything, least of all religion. It’s sometimes said that the son of a provincial glove-maker could not have had sufficient knowledge or experience to write the plays and poems he is credited with. These people perhaps forget the quality of imagination. Shakespeare is imagination and he was naturally a master of disguises. Those who say his plays were written by Sir Francis Bacon may be forgiven: they weren’t, because Bacon didn’t have the imagination. (Though I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that Shakespeare on occasion pretended to be Bacon.) He, after all, died of a chill contracted whilst trying to freeze chickens. The Bard on the other hand retired – and, let’s face it, it takes a special kind of artist to retire without endless comebacks – and died (relatively) peacefully in his best bed in Stratford.

So there’s plenty of room for ‘interpretation’ when it comes to artists illustrating Shakespeare. And the exhibition Shakespeare in Art currently at Dulwich (until 19 October) offers a splendid array of the painters who have been inspired, or perplexed, by the enigma of the man and the work. Organised in association with Ferrara Arte in Italy, and lavishly sponsored by Baring Asset Management (the catalogue is a distinguished hardback in its own right, published by Merrell at £29.95), the featured artists range from Blake to Holman Hunt, by way of Gustave Moreau and Delacroix. We see stage designs and portraits of famous actors in character, scenes of bloodshed, dream and passion, and crowd-pleasers of the most melodramatic sort. In effect, a most exhilarating and enjoyable show.

To a student of body language the exhibition must prove a godsend: all those outflung arms, uncomfortable stances and postures perilous.

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